80% of Military Voted or Tried To

In Iraq, Army Sgt. George Scheufele filled out an absentee ballot to vote for president in 2004.
In Iraq, Army Sgt. George Scheufele filled out an absentee ballot to vote for president in 2004. (By John Moore -- Associated Press)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

They fight and they vote.

Voter participation among members of the U.S. military reached an all-time high in 2004, reflecting a streamlined absentee balloting process and increased outreach efforts, Defense Department officials said.

Nearly 80 percent of people in the uniformed armed services voted or attempted to vote in the last presidential election, according to a survey by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which is supervised by the Pentagon. The 2004 participation rate reflected an increase of 10 percentage points from 2000 and was far higher than last year's rate for the general public, which was 64 percent.

The increased participation coincided with efforts by both political parties to reach out to service members, who number more than 1.4 million. The participation survey -- the 17th such report -- included responses from more than 29,000 people but did not ask how people voted or for party affiliation.

The survey's estimates of voter participation do not indicate turnout but instead include overall estimates of those who voted absentee, voted in person or attempted to vote in the 2004 elections. For example, while 79 percent of those in the uniformed services participated in some way, 73 percent voted successfully.

Between 2000 and 2004, the Defense Department made determined efforts to ensure that all service members were aware of their opportunities to vote, whether they were stationed in the United States or deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials also tried to work with local jurisdictions to allow for electronic absentee balloting and allowed citizens to access an online application from a computer at any location.

"We put a good deal of energy into improving the ability of our personnel to vote," said David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, who oversees the voting program. "Because voting is a significant opportunity of citizenship, and they are busy defending our freedoms, it was important to improve their ability to vote."

Chu said the 2004 election provided an opportunity to try to work out problems from past elections, such as soldiers missing absentee deadlines because of overseas mail or simply not understanding their rights. Voting assistance officers were stationed at every U.S. installation and base to increase awareness, publicity materials such as videos and posters were sent to U.S. troops around the world, and infrastructure was improved.

For example, Chu said, the department was able to get more local jurisdictions to accept ballots by fax. The U.S. Postal Service also chipped in, offering to handle all voting materials going in and out of the country as express mail to cut down on transmission times and decrease delivery problems. Overseas, commanders were charged with ensuring that any ballots originating from battlefield bases in Iraq would make it to voting locations in the United States within five days -- less than half the time it would take regular mail -- and Chu said the department came close to that standard.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program, which is mandated by Congress, helps more than 6 million voters worldwide, including members of the uniformed services, federal civilian employees overseas, and citizens overseas who are not federal workers. In survey results sent to Congress in October, the program reported significant increases in voting participation rates in all categories.

Chu said a lot of potential confusion was erased by the use of assistance officers, a new voting assistance guide, an online postcard application form, and the program's Web site -- http://www.fvap.gov/ -- which was accessed more than 8.2 million times between November 2003 and December 2004.

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